Musings on safety in the face of dangerous weather

Just hours ago, in his blog Meteorological Musings, Mike Smith posted a comment on the hailstorm that hit Omaha’s Eppley field last evening. He links to an interesting video of the hail, taken by a passenger on a fully-loaded plane out on a taxiway at the height of the storm, which damaged seven aircraft and closed the airport for three hours. Mike expects losses to run into the tens of millions of dollars.

And that for a mid-size airport! Losses can be, and have been, far worse. In May of 1995, a hailstorm hit Dallas-Fort Worth Airport as American Airlines was undergoing a hub operation. American Airlines cancelled more than 300 flights out of DFW the very next day, and another 200 flights the day following. More than 60 aircraft were damaged to the point they had to be inspected and/or repaired. Some planes were out of service for weeks. A subsidiary, American Eagle, experienced similar damage to equipment. Losses for the event as a whole were put in the range of a few billion dollars.

But that wasn’t what really bothers Mike. His paramount concern is safety. He expressed strong concerns about the threats to the safety of the aviation community and the traveling public. He cites a failure to make fullest use of available information on tornadoes, hail, and other risks – to get that information into the local aviation environment that is both under threat and where operational decisions are being made – where it might do some real good.

Note that this is a nearly universal challenge posed by weather hazards. Our technology and our science have advanced to the point where “we” – that is the meteorological professional community, comprising operational forecasters in both government agencies and private-sector firms – can see these events coming. As much as a few days ahead of time, we can spot areas of the country at growing risk to such violent weather extremes. Then, as the event continues to develop, the science and technology can pinpoint the areas of risk ever more precisely.

But it is a far cry from having those insights at some centralized location, or even a local NWS forecast office or private-sector forecast office, and getting that information to a client or customer (in the case of private-sector services) or to the public (as in the case of many of those same private-sector firms, the broadcast media, and the National Weather Service) when they are in harm’s way. When those warnings and forecasts leave the meteorological environment and enter the more chaotic, information-rich, environment of the sector-by-sector users (aviation to be sure, but also rail and other forms of transportation; agribusiness, energy, emergency managers, water-resource managers and many others) and the general public, the weather warnings all too often get lost in the general shuffle. In the work environment, weather information competes with economic concerns, scheduling imperatives, and the like. As for the general public, they (we) are out there running errands, picking up kids, making a doctor’s appointment, at a restaurant. We – all of us – are preoccupied, distracted, stressed. Even at the Indiana State Fairgrounds, we’re thinking more about the kids, or Sugarland, or the folks next to us, or grabbing a last bite to eat than we are about the darkening sky. And we’re maybe translating that darkening sky into our need for that foldable poncho versus the frailty of that stage towering above us. To know when and where weather information is critical, not just useful; to know how to break through to people in harm’s way – remains a problem for social scientists and others.

In the meantime, Mike and others like Mike in both the private- and public weather sectors remain focused on this challenge.

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5 Responses to Musings on safety in the face of dangerous weather

  1. Eddy Weiss says:

    So much of this stems from “the way it has always been” as we still, despite our cries for the latest in technology, walk in the ways of our past. As a young boy, I remember the Civil Defense guy; he was a motivated individual, always ready, always thinking about the plan that he would reveal to the rest of us as soon as disaster struck. Then came along the now-ever-evolving emergency manager who will sometimes include the public or local responders, but sometimes will still tend to keep the knowledge base within his/her own ranks in order to maintain control.
    Someday, it will change again. And hopefully sooner than later. There will come a new day when EVERYONE will realize that emergency management is not a career or a job title but a responsibility that we all share. It will be then that the State Fair Board partners with the local storm chaser, that the corporation meets with the government agency, that the family plans with the homeowners association.

    • Thanks, Eddy. This is a very thoughtful addition to the discussion. You said it very eloquently. Instead of delegating our safety to someone else, we’ve got to take ownership of this role. We hear a lot from the healthcare community about how patients can’t leave their health in the hands of the doctors, but need to work as partners. As you observe, the same applies for our safety in the face of weather extremes and other hazards.

      • Eddy Weiss says:

        This morning our weather tracking center was contacted by a photographer at the Lake In The Hills Airport in Lake In The Hills, Illinois. They were preparing to send up planes for their annual air show.
        When we told them bad weather was approaching, they grounded the planes and pulled the people in over 30 minutes before the storm.
        The Indianapolis tragedy has its fruit. People listened. Perhaps they are reading your blog. Perhaps we can win the war…
        To see pics from the airport, click on the link from Robert Pears, the photog that called.

  2. Dr Hooke and Eddy,

    People do listen – for awhile – after tragedy; the challenge is how to read the patterns in their expressed interest and coalesce strategy on the basis of underlying motivations and widely-shared hopes and fears. At the recent WAS*IS Summer Workshop, an exercise designed to generate a broad base of input and critique about a particular experimental program wound up tapping a deep moral concern. (See Weather and Uncertainty: Warn or Wait?)

    Rather than seeking to compete on the same terms against all the other messages out there in “the general shuffle,” perhaps those involved and concerned with the weather enterprise would do better to delve deep into the assumptions of warning, and mine the variety of viewpoints about warnings for a common thread of commitment.

    Establishing an anchor with a broad consensus is prerequisite – or simultaneous – to evaluating when weather information is critical, to whom, and on what timelines. If the general goal is resiliency, for instance, rather than prevention per se, a re-assessment of priorities and the relative hierarchy of information-sharing is paramount.


    • Thanks, Steph:

      thoughtful comment and the material at the link you provided was terrific. I hope folks will get a chance to look at all of it. Helps develop a feel for the moral dilemmas tucked away in the warning process, and at the same time should motivate some folks to apply for the WAS*IS experience in future years.
      Thank you for adding to the conversation. Bill

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